A Generational History of Engagement in the Workplace – The Rise and Fall of Employee Engagement


Are we witnessing the collapse of employee engagement in the workplace? 

Ok, I admit it sounds a little dramatic. But there is no denying the fact that today's employees are struggling to make a deep, lasting connection with their employers. Some even go so far as to view their "career" as a "job" and vow to only put forth the bare minimum effort in the workplace.

This is a huge one-eighty shift from the "workaholic" trend of the 1980s, leaving one scratching their head, wondering how we arrived here.

Gallup defines employee engagement as "the extent to which employees feel passionate about their jobs and are committed to the organization."

Employee engagement in the workplace affects retention, productivity, and loyalty and is critical to customer satisfaction.

Generational differences within the workplace can have a significant impact on the employee engagement levels at the office.

Each of us comes from a time where world events, the economy, evolving cultural norms, and technological advancements shape who we are. I call this our generational lens, and we look at and evaluate others through our own unique perspectives.

Differing values, work styles, and life experiences can lead to misunderstandings, conflicts, and negative stereotyping in the workplace, all of which can lead to a decline in employee engagement.

So with that in mind, let's take a deeper look into how each generation engaged its workplace and gain a better understanding of their generational perspective.

The History of How We Got Here

As the old saying goes, you don't know where you're going until you know where you've been – it helps to look at the history of modern employee/employer relations over the decades to truly understand how we arrived at where we are today.

Engagement in the Workplace - The Company Man

The "Company Man": Pre-1970's

The concept of the "company man" refers to an individual who is fully committed to their employer and their career within the company because they know the company is also committed to them. It refers to unspoken but understood, two-way loyalty.

The company would invest in and develop the employee, and in return, the employee would dedicate their long-term career to the company— a true win-win for both sides.

This type of worker is often seen as being loyal, dedicated, and willing to put the needs of the company above their own personal interests. The term is generally associated with a traditional view of work and career, where an individual would work for a single employer for their entire working life and where the company would provide job security and benefits such as retirement plans.

It is during this time that employee security was ensured with pension plans and "golden parachutes," agreements between a company and an employee specifying that the employee will receive certain significant benefits when the employee retires.

While this era can be highly romanticized, and many times these relationships were far from balanced, there was certainly a much higher degree of loyalty shown in each direction by both the employee and employer than we see today.

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The Boomers and the Slow Death of the "Company Man": 1970-1980's

Until the 1980s, most Americans planned for retirement through employer-derived pension plans.

For those that are not familiar, a pension is a retirement plan in which an employer sets aside money for an employee to be paid out to the employee upon retirement. Usually, it is a set amount of money that is paid out monthly, every year, until the death of the recipient. The catch is that you have to work for the employer for a certain number of years until the pension hits its maximum benefit - encouraging employee loyalty.

But in the late 1970s, everything changed when the U.S. Congress passed a new tax code, The Revenue Act of 1978. Long story short, this act established the 401(k) program as we know it today, which allows employees to save for their retirement in a tax-deferred manner, putting the power of controlling their retirement plan more in the hands of the employee than the employer.

And with this Act began the decline of pension programs, leading to employees to realize they no longer needed to stay at a single company for the entire duration of their career. And within a decade, the majority of US employees had transitioned from a traditional pension to a 401(k) retirement plan.

Gen X Become Free Agents in the 1990's

Gen X began entering the workforce on the heels of consistent tech-fueled economic growth, culminating in the late 1990s with the dot-com boom (and eventual bust). For many just out of college and starting their first big corporate position, it felt as if things were always this good and were only going to get better.

Not moving up the corporate ladder fast enough? Want a bigger raise? No problem... just change jobs. This was the all-too-common attitude in the 1990s.

While at the same time, corporations were reducing the level of training and investment they made in young employees due to the growing risk of employees jumping ship only after a year or two of employment.

When the dot-com collapse hit in the early 2000s, more than one million jobs were eliminated. At this point, there was no going back – Gen X were now free agents, for good or for bad.

Employee Engagement Becomes a Top Priority in the Workplace

Employee engagement has been a topic of interest for organizations for many years, but it wasn’t until the early 2000s that it became a top priority. This was partly due to research that demonstrated a strong link between employee engagement and organizational performance, including factors such as productivity, profitability, and customer satisfaction.

In 1998 Gallop began studies on employee engagement by conducting extensive research using a survey called the Q12. The Q12 survey consists of 12 questions designed to assess an employee's level of engagement with their work and their organization.

Here are a few of the questions asked:

  1. Do you know what is expected of you at work?
  2. At work, do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day?
  3. In the last seven days, have you received recognition or praise for doing good work?
  4. Does your supervisor or someone at work seem to care about you as a person?

Additionally, the technology boom fueled the rise of the knowledge economy, and the increasing importance of intangible assets, such as human capital and intellectual property, placed a greater emphasis on the importance of engaging and retaining talented employees. As a result, many companies began to invest in programs and initiatives to improve employee engagement, such as employee feedback and recognition programs, leadership development, and work-life balance initiatives.

Companies sought to create a positive workplace culture that valued collaboration, innovation, and employee feedback. This often involved initiatives such as employee recognition programs, open communication channels, and opportunities for employee involvement in decision-making.

As companies sought to win the "war for talent," a term that was popularized in a 1997 report by McKinsey & Company, many continuously upped the ante in regard to employee engagement, investing millions into elaborate campuses. In the 2000s, Google's campus, also known as the Googleplex, featured a range of on-site amenities and services for employees, such as a gym, laundry facilities, haircuts, and massage services. There were also multiple cafes and restaurants, including one that served free gourmet food to employees.

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The Millennial Shift

The first Millennials began entering the workforce in the early 2000s, with the bulk of the generation joining the workforce in the late 2000s and early 2010s. During this time, there was a shift in what these younger employees valued and the driving factors behind engagement in the workplace.

In addition to appreciation, Millennials desired purpose in their work and a connection to something greater than themself. Because of this, millennials are often seen as a driving force behind changes in work culture, such as the increasing importance of work-life balance, flexible work arrangements, and a focus on meaningful work and social responsibility.

As a result, companies began to look for ways to make work more meaningful and fulfilling for employees and sought to create positive workplace cultures that valued collaboration, innovation, and employee feedback.

So What Happened to Engagement in the Workplace?

Fast forward to today, and we are left wondering, “what the heck happened to employee engagement?”

As Gen Z enters the workplace, engagement numbers are at an all-time low – while the number of employees who are actively disengaged is rising fast.

So what is going on here?

While it is still too early to know the definitive cause, you would have to have been living under a rock not to be aware of the litany of disruptions and challenges our workplace has endured over the past several years.

That said, here are some factors that have negatively impacted employee engagement in the workplace.

Burnout and Stress

We’ve all been through a lot these past few years, and people are feeling it. Pandemic-driven workplace and mental health challenges have hit workers and managers particularly hard. This may not be surprising given the many challenges leadership faced, including record employee turnover and planning for various combinations of remote and on-site work, all while trying to match employee preferences with management’s expectations.

While we begin to put the pandemic in the rearview mirror, many people are still dealing with emotional trauma, fear, and anxiety.

Remote Work

While most employees today say they would prefer to work from home, for young employees, trying to learn the ropes of their first professional position working in a physical office is a crucial component to creating a sense of belonging and a connection to their co-workers. Without that, these employees may struggle to learn necessary behaviors and skills, understand what is expected of them, share their ideas, discover growth opportunities, and build office friendships – all necessary elements to driving engagement in the workplace.

The Rise of the Gig Economy

Gen Z came of age during a growing trend toward gig-based work. Advances in technology have made it easier than ever to turn one’s skills and hobbies into paying “side hustles,” or even full-time jobs. The problem is this type of gig work does not lend itself to employer/employee loyalty. People engaged with a side hustle have a tendency to invest most of their energy into their side jobs and don’t put their best foot forward in their careers.

What Will Our Relationship With Work Look Like in 2025?

What does the future of employee engagement in the workplace look like in the next few years? Will there be a rebound, or will disengagement numbers continue to rise?

As this new generation continues to enter the workforce and traditional work models shift and evolve, organizations will need to continue to adapt, innovate, and listen to engage and retain top talent.

In the end, the organizations that will be most successful at engaging employees in the future will be those that are able to balance the needs of their people with the needs of the business, while remaining agile and adaptable in the face of changing trends and expectations.


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